It takes time for grass to become milk.

That was one of their mother's favorite sayings, according to Joe Long, who with his sister, Angie Long Seeley, now owns Gardner Village, a destination shopping center in West Jordan that was created by their mother, Nancy Long Christensen.

"That, and 'don't be afraid to go out on a limb — that's where the fruit is.' We grew up on sayings like that," he laughs.

But if you look at how the village started in 1979 and at how far it has come, you soon realize that these are more than simple sayings. It took a lot of risk, tempered with a lot patience, to make Gardner Village happen. And it took a lot of work — but as Christensen used to say: "It's not work unless you'd rather be doing something else," and there was never anything else she wanted to do.

This fall, Country Furniture & Gifts, the original store started by Christensen and the flagship store of the village, was named Country Business Magazine's 2002 Retailer of the Year.

"It's a huge honor in this industry," says Marcia Johns, marketing director at Gardner Village. "If you think how many stores in the nation focus on the country genre, we're very excited to be recognized as the best."

Country Furniture & Gifts is truly an amazing store, says Country Business Magazine editor Susan Wagner. "Every niche of the three-story building is filled with beautiful merchandise arranged in wonderfully creative settings."

Stores are judged on appearance, merchandising techniques, customer service, management skills and business savvy, she said. "Joe Long and Angie Seeley have made Country Furniture & Gifts a showcase of the West. They have a wonderful relationship with their customers as well as staff, and it shines through in the operation of the store."

Wagner came to Utah to present a marble-and-gold trophy and other prizes to the store, which is also featured in the November/December issue of the magazine.

The country look is popular right now, said Tammy Schaetz, who manages Country Furniture & Gifts. "But home fashion is transitional. You don't see pure country or pure contemporary, you see a lot of mixing. People choose what they like, not necessarily what fits in with a specific genre. So the store's philosophy is to give customers a lot to like.

"We try to find local vendors as much as we can. But we try to stay unique, so we bring in a lot of one-of-a-kind things. We tell people that if they like what they see, they'd better buy it. Chances are good it won't be here when they come back. Our inventory is constantly changing."

A variety of shops

Today, Gardner Village includes 22 different shops and has approximately 140 employees. Long and Seeley own Country Furniture & Gifts, with the adjoining Archibald's restaurant, the Quilt Shop,

Village Whites, Down to Earth and the Gathering Place, a new meeting and reception facility (as well as the Black Goose, a design store around the corner from the village).

The rest of the shops are independently owned; land and buildings are leased from Gardner Village. They include a bakery, a day spa (the most recent addition) and other shops featuring clothing, antiques, Christmas memorabilia, art, candy, gardening objects and other distinct items — many housed in historic buildings that were brought to the village from all over the state.

While their demographics slant heavily toward women, Seeley said, the village also is becoming a popular stop on bus tours. "We get at least one or two a week, more in the summer. They'll pull in and stop for a couple of hours and let their tour members wander and shop."

Locals also find it a great place to bring their out-of-town visitors — as well as shop for themselves. There's really nothing else like it in the valley, she said.

Long and Seeley officially bought out their mother and took over the business in June. Christensen had contracted multiple sclerosis, and Chris Christensen, the man she married in 1983, also was having health problems.

Originally, four of the children were involved, "but that shook down to just the two of us," said Long, who is president of the company. Seeley is vice president, with a focus on retail.

They work well together, Seeley said, with strengths that complement each other. And they have some exciting plans for the future. They'd like to add a 40-room bed and breakfast, a furniture warehouse and some more retail stores.

"Our biggest focus is to enhance the village concept," Long said. "We want to create a unique atmosphere. We want to provide great values in a great setting."

Visitors to the village, he said, should be sure to look at some of the historic pictures they have hung. Even they are amazed sometimes at how much the village has changed, he said.

"Basically, this all began with one woman, and a dream she wouldn't give up on."

A dream to follow

The building that houses Country Furniture & Gifts was constructed in 1853 by Archibald Gardner. Gardner was a convert to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from Scotland via Canada and arrived in the valley in 1847. He worked in the Cottonwood Canyon area before moving to the west side of the valley.

Gardner, known for his 11 wives and 48 children, built more than 36 grist, saw and flour mills in his lifetime. His West Jordan Flour Mill was soon surrounded by a mattress factory, broom factory, blacksmith shop, tannery and other enterprises, and it became an economic hub in that part of the valley.

Eventually, the flour mill was sold and finally abandoned. From the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s, it was used mainly for grain storage.

When Christensen discovered it in 1979, it was in "extreme disrepair," says Long. "You could see through the walls."

The building had almost been sold to a demolition company, but that company decided it wasn't worth the cost of tearing it down just for the lumber. West Jordan also was thinking of buying it and using it as training for the city's fire crews.

"But Mom convinced the owner to sell to her. She borrowed $100,000, at interest rates of 21 percent," Long said. "Everyone thought she was crazy. But she had this vision of what it could be."

He remembers walking from Midvale Junior High over to the mill. "My job was to shovel dirt and residue from the sandblasting into five-gallon buckets and haul it away."

Christensen opened Country Furniture & Gifts in 1980, and to say business was slow is a vast understatement. "She would ask her customers to bring in their old sacks because she couldn't afford to buy new ones," Seeley said. "But the customers loved that; they loved her."

"She was so hungry for customers," added Long, "that when one came, she waited on that person with her whole heart." Her customers became her friends.

In the beginning, she sold many antiques and would take in furniture and gift items on consignment. "We'd look around the house and find something missing and knew she took it down to the store," Seeley said.

In 1983, she married Chris, and it was his dream to add the restaurant, Long said. Archibald's opened in 1990, and sales had doubled by the next year.

"About that time, they started bringing in the old buildings: an old house belonging to a mayor of Midvale; an old army barracks from Clover. They advertised in the paper for people with old buildings to move."

Gardner Village has never looked back.

However, Seeley said, "we could never have done it by ourselves. All along, Gardner Village has attracted creative people, and we've benefited from that. We love our people; we believe in them."

It has taken patience, daring and hard work. But the grass has turned into milk.


E-mail: [email protected]